Service at High Cost


The Clinton Administration's plan to link paid nationalservice and education -- at enormous cost -- will provide less service and less education for the dollar than any program in memory.

Remember VISTA? Volunteers in Service to America is still on the books, and it is only one of more than 20 federal programs that include provisions for volunteers.

Remember the GI Bill? The White House has wrapped its service program in it, yet the Servicemen's Readjustment Act was for perilous service rendered. At that, the Congress and White House were haunted by the specters of bonus armies and 30 percent unemployment.

Consider the cost of Mr. Clinton's "national service" proposal -- at $20,000 a year 150,000 students, the bill's initial target, would cost $3 billion dollars a year. That's $5,000 a year for higher education, the remaining $15,000 a year for a minimum wage and health benefits while in service.

The initial target population, of course, is merely the tip of the iceberg. In the campaign, Mr. Clinton promised that national service should be the preferred way to pay for college. Not surprisingly, the notion of a free ride appeals to strapped members of the working and middle class, students as well as parents -- at least until they see the arithmetic. If half the nation's 12,000,000 students enrolled in higher education opted for "national service," the tab would be $120 billion a year and only 25 percent of that would be used to defray school costs. A lot of money even by Washington standards.

Oddly enough, the congressional debate so far has focused on means testing, with Republicans arguing that only the poor should be eligible and the Demcrats arguing that everyone should. And because the White House has presented the bill as a trial balloon, unions have not had to declare themselves on the issue of Uncle Sam creating 6 million minimum-wage jobs out of whole cloth. When they do, the debate should be lively.

It is clear that this version of national service could not be funded on a large scale even if the budget were in balance; the White House, running absurdly expensive proposals up the flag pole, invites more public cynicism and distrust.

There is an even more important reason to be concerned about a "national service" system owned and operated by the government, however. It is almost sure to sap the moral energy it is meant to harness. Service -- given freely and voluntarily -- is an American tradition. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed in "Democracy In America" more than 150 years ago, Americans take pleasure in "noting how an enlightened self-love continually leads them to help one another and disposes them freely to give part of their time and wealth for the good of the state."

Tocqueville was right. Voluntary contributions and service are major American activities. Independent Sector, which tracks non-profit activity, estimates that in 1991 American individuals gave $103 billion in charitable contributions, and 51 percent of adults report that they volunteer regularly. Independent Sector estimates the value of volunteer time in 1991 at $176 billion.

But the value of service must be measured in more than dollars. In healthy families and communities, "service" is routinely expected as a condition of membership. Service builds character. As Aristotle noted, people learn to be virtuous by behaving virtuously. Pay Junior to do chores, and you soon discover you're subsidizing sloth by reinforcing a natural reluctance not to volunteer.

Indeed, in a society routinely accused of crass materialism and laboring under mountains of debt, one would expect a national leader to issue a call to personal sacrifice. Even the most benighted spin doctor should see that it would make good political sense to establish a connection between government largess and hard work, whether the issue is welfare or education. For example, students who benefit from government grants and loans should be expected to get good grades as a condition of their awards; incredibly, alone among industrialized countries, our national government makes no such demand.

And if Mr. Clinton really thinks service is important -- as it undeniably is -- he could propose that service -- several hours a week -- be a condition of receiving federal grants or loans. Many private and a few public secondary schools now require service as a condition of graduation, and the state of Maryland will require it beginning this September. No less should be expected of the nation's undergraduates.

Service is an opportunity to help yourself by learning to help others; by giving yourself you learn about yourself as you learn about others. No one in our society is so exalted or so depraved as to not benefit from service. That is the underlying insight of the Maryland program. As a condition of graduation, service is good for everyone.

Denis Doyle is a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad